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Michael Bell

Michael Bell

Michael Bell

Netanyahu’s ‘Jewish state’ bill would be a crippling blow to Israel Add to ...

Israelis will soon face a primordial decision respecting the future of their country: whether to define Israel as a supra-national state which accords primary rights, both in law and in fact, based solely on Jewish identity. The thrust of the Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s “nation-state bill” effectively discards the long-held (if imperfectly observed) legal assertion that all Israelis, including that country’s Arab citizens, enjoy equality under the law. If passed, it would become part of Israel’s constitution.

Mr. Netanyahu’s decision to fire centrist party leaders Yair Lapid and Tzipi Livni has precipitated an almost certain move to general elections in Israel, most likely to be held 17 March. The battle will be fought between those styling themselves centrists and leftists on the one hand and those of the nationalist right on the other, among whom the Prime Minister considers himself.

Mr. Netanyahu appears intent on establishing a post-election coalition composed of right–wing nationalist and religious entities, dropping the centrist parties. Centrists have been a burden to him in the chaotic and ideological world of Israeli coalition politics. Mr. Netanyahu has targeted Mr. Lapid and Ms. Livni in particularm labeling them them as weak both on Iran and the Palestinians and disloyal for their opposition to the nation-state bill. Both have vociferously criticized his plans to build an additional 1,000 housing units in Jewish settlements in what has been historically Arab East Jerusalem. The Prime Minister has castigated Ms. Livni respecting the Palestinian equation: “She met with Mahmoud Abbas (the president of the Palestinian Authority) against my explicit order.” Ms. Livni, Israel’s most respected centrist, has made clear her view that the elections will determine whether or not Israel is to become an “extremist country.”

The proposed “nation-state bill” contains three core provisions: that Israel be designated “the nation state of the Jewish people,” that Arabic be dropped as an official language despite its being the tongue of some 22 per cent of the country’s population, and that ancient Jewish law form the basis of the Israeli legal system. The current president of Israel, Reuven Rivlin, and his predecessor Shimon Peres have both expressed concern. The newspaper Haaretz, widely regarded as Israel’s journal of record, has condemned the bill’s provisions: “The prime minister has once again proved to be an extreme nationalist willing to sacrifice this country’s basic values in pursuit of a destructive ideology.”

Despite a strong commitment to liberal democracy, I have some sympathy for Israel’s designation as a Jewish state given that country’s genesis and modern history. Successive commissions detailing various partition plans for the British Palestine Mandate, including the Woodhead commission of 1938, as well as the 1947 United Nations Partition Plan itself, explicitly called for the creation of both an Arab and Jewish state in Mandatory Palestine.

But context is sometimes everything: never more than now.

In the ferment of Israel’s intense environment, all aspects of the bill threaten liberal Zionism’s perhaps unattainable but nevertheless noble commitment to equity for all its citizens whatever their ethnicity. It would be a death blow were the national bill to become law, further attenuating the alienation of Arab citizens of Israel from their Jewish counterparts. The bill legitimizes open discrimination. It would further alienate Palestinians in the occupied territories and in the refugee camps who strive for a state of their own. In the broader Arab and Muslim worlds it would additionally confirm the belief that Zionism is racism. It would prejudice and further alienate those in the West who have already fallen out of sympathy with nationalist Zionism Should the bill become law, following a rightist victory in the likely forthcoming elections, European states can be expected to move still more rapidly toward official diplomatic recognition of a Palestinian state, however fragmented the latter might be.

This bill poses a dilemma both symbolically and substantively for those in the Jewish diaspora. The question has been brewing within American Jewish organizations for some time and Mr. Netanyahu’s proposed legislation has brought it to a head. Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League has spoken out against the bill. Others such as Sheldon Adelson, a core Republican Party financial backer, have openly suggested that democracy should be sacrificed if the choice is between that and an unambiguously Jewish state.

Canada will not be immune from this dilemma, given its important Jewish diaspora; nor will the Canadian government. However reluctantly, Prime Minister Stephen Harper will be forced to pass judgment should the bill become law.

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